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Richland County coroner hires lawmaker ex-husband's brother, a former restaurant operator

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Naida Rutherford (copy)

Naida Rutherford

COLUMBIA — A powerful state lawmaker supported his ex-wife's successful bid to unseat a longstanding Richland County coroner, and now she's hired the legislator's brother.

Newly seated Coroner Naida Rutherford said she violated no ethical rules in hiring Harry "Torr" Rutherford, brother of House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, as a deputy coroner.

She called her former brother-in-law "highly qualified." Harry Rutherford previously operated the Grilled Teriyaki restaurant in Five Points until it closed in 2020.

Todd Rutherford, a Columbia attorney, said his past relationship with the coroner or as a legislator has no bearing on his brother being hired and that the move was only being questioned because he is Black. Naida Rutherford said her ex-husband's campaign support had nothing to do with bringing abroad Harry Rutherford.

She said she is committed to transparency and will soon include a list of employees on its website, but the coroner's office declined to provide Harry Rutherford's resume, a summary of his qualifications or his salary without a formal open-records request to the county, a process that can take weeks.

When initially asked about Harry Rutherford's qualifications, Naida Rutherford said he has leadership experience from working for a police department in the Washington, D.C., area and held a doctorate degree in science. But she did not specify his position with the police agency or the subject of the degree or where it was obtained.

Her office referred further questions about his work history to the pending records request.

Hours after Post and Courier Columbia first posted its article online, Naida Rutherford directed a reporter to a video posted to her office’s Facebook page on Feb. 15 in which she interviews Harry Rutherford and he says he attended Howard University and while he was in school was a police reservist in Washington, D.C. He also notes he then earned a doctor of chiropractic degree from Life University in Marietta, Ga., and later returned to South Carolina to care for his mother.

Harry Rutherford investigates death scenes while being on call at all times, Naida Rutherford said. His title of deputy coroner is the same one held by much of the staff of 32 in the coroner's office.

A candidate for deputy coroner requires only an associate's degree, Naida Rutherford said. While state law outlines education and training requirements for coroners, there are so such guidelines for deputy coroners. 

"I needed people who could do the job and do it well," Naida Rutherford said. "To be a deputy coroner is a difficult task and not everybody can stomach that. We had several people that submitted applications and wanted to work here in the office, and we were able to bring on an amazingly diverse staff."

Harry Rutherford was sued on Feb. 1 by the landlord for Grilled Teriyaki, seeking $57,622 in unpaid rent dating back to June 2019, penalties and legal fees, according to court filings. Harry Rutherford has not filed a response to the complaint.

A coroner's office spokesman declined a request to speak to Harry Rutherford.

In saying his ex-wife is being targeted unfairly, Todd Rutherford said there are multiple coroners in the state who don't meet updated education requirements for the position as laid out by state law and examples of officials' family members in favorable positions throughout state and local governments who aren't scrutinized because they are White.

"The fact that I've been in legislative office 23 years should not stop my family members from wanting to give back nor get in public service for doing whatever it is they want to do," Todd Rutherford said.

Naida Rutherford, a nurse practitioner, unseated five-term incumbent Gary Watts in the Democratic primary election in June 2020. She's the first African American and first woman to hold the Richland County coroner's office.

Her election bid was endorsed by Todd Rutherford, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, on his campaign website and in posts on his social media.

Naida Rutherford also endorsed her ex-husband's campaign. Todd Rutherford, who has represented his North Columbia district more than 20 years, was elected to another two-year term in November 2020.

Todd Rutherford in 2017 proposed a bill that would have only required a coroner be a high school graduate and complete a 40-hour training course, rolling back requirements that have been beefed up during the past decade. He said at the time the requirements are too limiting for an elected office and more restrictive than qualifications for president and U.S. Senate, The Post and Courier reported at the time.

Update: This story has been updated to include more information about Harry Rutherford's qualifications provided by Naida Rutherford and details of a pending legal case involving Harry Rutherford.

Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.

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